Heroin addicts are to be given free foil - to heat up the drug - in an effort to help them kick the habit and cut the risk of contracting disease, the Government will announce tomorrow.
They will be offered the foil to encourage them to inhale, rather than inject, class A substances, as part of programmes to tackle their addiction.
Addicts use aluminium foil to warm heroin and breathe in its fumes in a practice nicknamed “chasing the dragon”. Substances such as crystal meth and cocaine can be inhaled in the same way.
Critics will raise questions over any move that enables drug users to maintain their habit, but the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) concluded last year that offering foil can help an addict’s eventual recovery.
Providing aluminium foil is safer than addicts buying “tin foil” used in cooking as that contains vegetable oil which can be toxic when breathed in.
Health experts also argue that smoking heroin stops users contracting blood-borne viruses like HIV and hepatitis B through shared needles, cuts damage to veins and soft tissue and reduces the risk of overdose.
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An order will be laid in Parliament on Friday to sweep away the ban on health professionals issuing free foil on the condition that it is provided within programmes to tackle addiction.
The change in the law, which currently prohibits the supply of “articles to be used for the preparation or consumption of illicit drugs”, will come into force next month. It will apply both to the National Health Service and privately run treatment centres.
Norman Baker, the Crime Prevention Minister, said the available evidence shows that providing foil did not encourage drug use, but spurred addicts to get help.
“By allowing foil to be legally provided by healthcare professionals we are taking another positive step in reducing the number of individuals, families and communities whose lives are destroyed by drugs,” the Lib Dem minister told The Independent.
“The decision was made on the condition that it is part of structured efforts to get individuals off drugs and will minimise the risk of spreading viruses like HIV, while encouraging more addicts to engage with support services.
“It is also part of a range of work the coalition government is doing to reduce and prevent illegal drug use – helping dependent individuals through treatment, educating young people about the risks and supporting law enforcement in tackling the illicit trade.”
The move comes amid signs that use of the most addictive substances is falling, particularly in younger age groups, among whom heroin use has fallen out of fashion as they switch to party drugs.
However, recent figures suggest almost 300,000 people in England still use heroin and crack cocaine, with 529 deaths in England and 46 in Wales in 2012 linked to heroin.
Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform, the drugs policy charity, said: “It is much safer to be smoking heroin than injecting it. This is a sensible harm reduction intervention when you are trying to get people to transition from a more dangerous way of using heroin to a less dangerous way.”
The ACMD had been examining the case for providing foil for since 2009. Twelve months ago it called for the move to take place, a recommendation that was accepted by the Home Secretary Theresa May.
She approved its conclusions as long as foil is “only offered by drug treatment providers as part as part of structured efforts to get individuals into treatment, on the road to recovery and off of drugs”.